poetry

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This question comes up sometimes at readings: How do you start a poem—with a line or a thought or an image? They’re so closely linked that trying to figure out which comes first can get tricky. But, having read Bethany Reid’s blog posts, I’m going to set all three aside and say that my best poems come from a feeling—the feeling behind or under the thought, something as compelling as a two-year-old tugging at my jacket, something that doesn’t want to let go.

I fail when I ignore that tug or say, “Later.” I’m really not good at stopping whatever I’m doing and writing that poem that’s asking to be written. I have pulled over to the side of the road, but rarely. I have stopped on my way out the door to work, but not often and not this morning.

And this morning, I realized: No matter how well I can remember the words I was thinking, and even if I find time to write them down later, to try to kick-start that poem, I probably won’t have the same feeling. It’s possible I’ll be able to get some echo of it back, but after a commute and traffic, it isn’t likely. By then, I’m at a distance from that initial impetus—a remove that’s great for revising but not for generating.

If what start’s a poem is that feeling, I resolve try harder and be better at stopping EVERYTHING and listening to that poem pulling at my sleeve, to write it down. I’ll need to, because what’s next (what’s now) is graduate school, and I’ll need all the poems I can get.

Recently, at the end of a Costco shopping trip, I did listen, and in my blazing hot car I wrote as long as I could stand it. Because I had to return to Costco today—and just for fun—here is the poem:

This Is My Costco Poem

For the couple ahead ambled, pausing
to peruse each label
as another woman pondered
six or more possible sausage choices.
For I nearly left the new pens
in the basket, having never
purchased pens here until now.
For the mother ahead of me bought
a bazillion wondrous things,
but not the big box of Snapware
on the lower rack of her cart.
For such was then added to my order.
For the cart steered heavy, too heavy
halfway through the parking lot.
For I had no room in my cupboards
to keep that much plastic,
although I coveted the clicks of the lids.
For I found some confusion
at the customer service counter
before it was my turn to return.
For I have red peppers and tomatoes,
I have four kinds of meat
and a station wagon resplendent
under the sun, miles of stop-and-go
traffic with one more store for peanuts.
For I have promised myself
after shopping I will not drink gin
shaken or stirred. For I have sweat
and sweat and sweat and sweat
and this poem that perseveres.

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Someone asked me this the other day. My inside answer was, “How many do you have? I have only a few poems, so far, from all that writing, I am a slow, slow writer” and my outside answer was, “If they’re ready, send them out.”

The next question: “Where?”

There are the easy places to check:
The listings at the back of Poets & Writers and The Writer’s Chronicle
New Pages
The Review Review
Submittable (generally fewer listings, but you can subscribe by email, so opportunities appear in your inbox)

Many people use Duotrope (I haven’t in quite a while).

I also have a copy of Poet’s Market, and I should use that more.

Seeing where other people publish is also helpful. Check the acknowledgements sections of books that have poems akin to your poems. In an earlier post, I talked about reading, which is good for inspiration and learning and also submitting. Where are those poems from? After you read poems on Verse Daily and Poetry Daily and the poems that your Facebook friends post links to, check out the journals. Are they possible venues for your poems?

Summer is coming, and the number of pubs that are reading slims way down, but you can search on something like “poetry year-round submission” to find opportunities. Just remember to check the publication—do you like it, and will your work be a good fit?

Often I try to balance things—if I’m on a roll writing, I don’t worry about submitting. If I’m feeling stuck, that’s a good time for me to invest time and energy in sending things out. Anything to keep from feeling like I’m stuck in the mud. Sometimes, my wheels are just spinning: I have a long list of poems, and then I can’t figure out where to send them to, or they all seem like they need more work–they’re too young or  they’re too flat or I thought they were stellar and now I see only flaws (on the plus side, if I can identify what look like flaws, those are good candidates for revision). It’s easy to get overwhelmed.

And advice to myself: Take the opportunity. A gorgeous anthology is coming out, and I do not have any poems in it—not because my work was turned down, but because I didn’t even submit. I probably saw the call, and I probably and thought, “Oh, I don’t write poems about motherhood anymore” (which is not even true). I didn’t try, which is worse than getting a rejection. Read the guidelines, including the fine print. Try. In the meantime, revel in breathtaking poems by Karen Craigo, Beth Ann Fennelly, and others.

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Last Friday I had the pleasure of reading poetry at the monthly RASP series at VALA Arts in Redmond. It was great to be in a gallery surrounded by art both finished and in progress. People’s creative spaces stood in various states of interruption–brushes, canvases, a pair of shoes on the floor (were they to be worn or drawn?). Plus, I was pouring wine for Cloudlift Cellars, which gave introverted me a way to talk to people before I read for them.

After the reading, during the Q&A, emcee Michael Dylan Welch asked me about my reading habits and how they influence my writing. The next day, I started to remember what I forgot to mention, and I thought that I would return to the topic here.

I started with the easy stuff—Verse Daily, Poetry Daily, Cascadia Review, the Poetry Foundation’s poem of the day, and The Writer’s Almanac, which now comes to me in email. What I like about those last two is that they aren’t tied to what’s new—they feature works across a long span of writing and reading time.

Another great resource also comes to me in email: Dennis Caswell’s mailing list. I appreciate the range of poems that Dennis selects—across time, across styles and subjects. Every weekday I have a gift waiting for me. Sometimes it challenges me. Sometimes I don’t get it. I like that—it’s an opportunity for me to expand my understanding. Then, Monday morning also brings the American Life in Poetry poem. And recently I signed up for the daily poem from Rattle.

The websites and emails often introduce me to poets I haven’t read before—and sometimes I’m smitten enough to pick up copies of their books. That’s one influence.

Books! Last Friday, I didn’t really talk about books, but I appreciate getting to explore a collection of someone’s poems, to see how they structured the collection, to hear the conversations in the poems and between the poems, books that I can return to, read over and over again, books that when I’m feel like I’m lost or flailing help me get into the poetry zone.

I also look at the poems that I really like and try to figure out why—specifically. What can I learn from this poem, what is it doing?

But Michael’s question has stayed with me. How could I extend that influence? I could use the first line of a poem that I like as a jumping off point. Or I could write in the style of that poem. In a Dorianne Laux workshop, we wrote in the exact rhythm of a poem. It was not easy (I did not get very far) but it’s a way to open up new routes in the brain.

What are other ways that you learn from a poem? What are your favorite reads?

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Take yesterday’s prompt, for example. I wrote and wrote to fit in all the words, and I came up with some pretty weird stuff. Usually, in a poem, I think weird is good, going to some unexplored territory. But sometimes it’s just strange and disjointed.

How weird is too weird? How do you carve away the extra stuff without cutting off David’s nose?

(At this point, I think of Dean Young’s comment at SAL that it has to have a spine running through it. Does it have a spine?)

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I had a wonderful dance teacher who would show us the proper form or gently correct our alignment and say, “That’s the project.”

Now I have a manuscript that I’ve been working on for more than five years. Okay, that’s the project–but what is it? It began as a chapbook, it became a full-length book, then a mashup of two projects, then I removed the poems from the second project, then I started taking poems out, all the while writing new poems for it, and turned it back into a chapbook–with a big stack of leftover poems, three title changes, and lots of contest rejections. I’ve loved it, I’ve hated it, I’ve been embarrassed, excited, and sometimes ready to bury it in the digital basement and focus on the next thing.

For the moment, I’m happy with the manuscript, and I’ve sent it out to a couple of places. But the other evening while cooking dinner I started to thing about those abandoned poems, how I could re-envision them, tie them essentially to the heart of what this manuscript is now, and add them back in. From this musing:

The book is a lung, inhales
to fifty, sixty pages,
sighs out to twenty-five,
a dream thinning past
phantom windows the alley light
paints on the night’s wall.
I say book and mean manuscript
breathing in again–it was love
in the galleries, love and palm trees,
love with gnocchi, love when it sprawled
after the afternoon Champagne,
sheets carefree on the floor, love
when it caught my throat.
It was tickets and take offs, road trips
and running through stations.
For a good year, it was not good,
and then it was back to love
which is to say popcorn with butter
and truffle salt, steak dinner in the dark,
vodka tonics by the pool,
the sun sweat skinness inspiring
deeply three more poems
as love arrives like a train
in the desert, the air soaked with it.

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